What is a Sylph?
A Sylph is one of four elemental fairies. They may also be known as a sylphid or sylvestres. They live in and are the air. They can be the wind and weather, manipulate the clouds, rain and snow.
There are far fewer stories about encounters with these very elusive fae. Their very nature is that of the atmosphere around us, they are lightfast, mostly invisible, and have very little reason to show themselves to us except maybe out of a curiosity on their part. Knowing their element and the incredible vastness of it, it should come as no surprise that these may be among some of the largest known fae. They can tower to impossible heights, quite possibly larger than the mountains themselves. No way to know for certain, and yet they have also the ability to shift into the smallest wisp. They are not bound by corporeal bodies in the way we are. Their element is flexible, changeable and they manipulate it with ease.
The Air Elemental
It seems likely that Plato was the first to use the term “element” in reference to air, fire, earth and water. Aristotle built upon this notion and defined an element as
“a body into which other bodies may be analysed, present in them potentially or in actuality (which of these, is still disputable), and not itself divisible into bodies different in form.”
When Paracelsus, a medieval physician, alchemist, and astronomer, came around to using the term element, it was no longer a new concept. He did hold a unique belief about an aspect of these elements. He was certain in the existence of the elemental spirit-men who thrived in the chaos of these elements. He has, in fact, been given credit for “inventing” these elementals. I’m not sure what he would have thought of this notion. Especially since, in his own words, he bluntly states, “These are not good names, but I use them nevertheless. The names have been given by people who did not understand them. But since they designate the things and since they can be recognized by the names, I shall leave it at that.”
While he did not invent the elementals, his writings have preserved the name and some of the characteristics of these very special fairy which we may have lost into the forgetfulness of time otherwise.
As Aristotle stated, the elements do not mix to create new elements. Paracelsus also stated Elementals can exist next to one another but they cannot be combined and they do not mix company with each other. They need their element to live and thrive. Just as we need the elements around us (air to breath, fire to keep us warm, water to sustain, and earth to shelter us) so they need their own element to provide these self same roles.
The air gives a sylph everything it needs. A Sylph is a spirit of the wind and is, according to Paracelsus, the closest element to us. Fire burns them, water drowns them and the earth suffocates them. So long as they are in their own element they are well, but in another they cannot survive. Knowing now the nature of the Sylph, the Greek meaning of Silphe, or butterfly, which is the origin of the Sylph’s name, does indeed seem to miss the mark. A sylph could not be a butterfly since they are made entirely of their own element and a butterfly is corporeal and certainly not part of the same element.
Our Human Fascination
The Sylphs are rarely glimpsed, yet they have found their way into our literature time and again. Their glinting wings and the softness of their being is apparently eternally enchanting. We may not have the ability to fully grasp the magnificence of their nature, but it does not stop us from trying. In the Rape of the Lock, by Alexander Pope, we have perhaps some of the best known and loved poems about the sylph.